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August 20, 2004

Maldives Unrest Worries International Community


by Feizal Samath

COLOMBO – Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest running autocratic leader, is under international pressure to stop the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Colombo-based diplomats, who declined to be named, said a high-powered European Union delegation from EU-member missions based in Colombo was expected to fly to the capital Male at the weekend to urge the Maldives government to stop its harassment of political opponents.

Gayoom's government, which does not allow opposition political parties in the country, justified the crackdown and the state of emergency saying it was in danger of being toppled.

"Gayoom has to step down. That's the only way," Mohamed Latheef, founder and spokesperson for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), told IPS. The MDP is a political party in exile based in the Sri Lankan capital – which is just an hour's flight away from Male.

Latheef's call has been echoed by many young Maldivians, some of whom recently carried banners saying, "Gayoom Should Quit" – a rare sight in a nation of some 340,000 people living for 25 years under a one-party government headed by Gayoom.

The Maldives government ordered a crackdown after political dissidence snowballed last week when protesters took to the streets demanding democracy and calling for the release of all political prisoners. Curfew has been declared in the Indian Ocean archipelago, which is now under a state of emergency.

The British-owned telecommunications firm, Cable and Wireless – which handles Internet access in the Maldives – has confirmed that the government severed all Internet connections on Aug. 13.

"This grave and irresponsible step is unprecedented anywhere in the world and President Gayoom has embarked on a spiral of repression that is extremely worrying," the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres said in a statement.

Some members of Parliament are among the 90 people believed to have been arrested after the demonstrations. The former secretary-general of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Ibrahim Husein Zaki, is one of those currently detained by Gayoom's government.

Both Britain and the United States on Tuesday criticized the crackdown and raised concerns about the state of emergency.

A Foreign Office statement said the British government was "concerned by reports of large numbers of arrests, including of members of the Maldives parliament."

The U.S. government expressed concern that recent unrest in the Maldives would undermine the Indian Ocean archipelago's commitment to democratic reforms, and called for those arrested during anti-government demonstrations to be treated humanely.

"The United States notes with concern recent unrest in the Maldives connected to the Aug. 12-13 demonstrations on the capital island, Male," said a State Department statement.

"We hope that the government of Maldives' reaction to these demonstrations, including subsequent arrests of protesters and political leaders, will not undermine the process of political and constitutional reform to which the government of the Maldives has committed itself," the statement added.

"The United States also calls for all detainees to be treated humanely, fairly, and in accordance with the Maldivian Constitution and international norms of human rights," Deputy State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli said in the statement.

Latheef, a former member of Parliament, founded the MDP in Colombo after his 31-year-old activist daughter was arrested by police on Sept. 21, 2003, for wearing a T-shirt which said "Stop Brutality."

He took the first flight out of Male the next day and has not returned since, fearing that he would be jailed for forming the pro-democracy party that has the support of many of the country's top residents including MPs, businessmen, civil society activists and some sections of the judiciary.

"Gayoom should pave the way for democracy and change," he said adding that while the pro-democracy movement is moving towards an ouster of the Maldivian president it was not out for vengeance.

"We are looking at the South African-type truth and reconciliation model. We want a peaceful transition," Latheef pointed out.

Following large-scale demonstrations calling for democratic reforms in September 2003, Gayoom announced measures to reform the political and judicial systems and bring the criminal justice system into conformity with fair trial standards.

Tensions, however, emerged in July when many MPs accused Gayoom of reneging on his September 2003 promises. These tensions then culminated into last week's mass demonstrations.

But observers point to the fact that unless economic pressure is exerted on Maldives, it will be business-as-usual for Gayoom.

Gayoom has attributed the economic boom since he took office to his policy of encouraging wealthy Westerners to stay at the Maldives' upmarket island resorts.

Maldives' economy is dependent on tourism, which accounts for 20 percent of GDP and brings in 60 percent of foreign exchange revenue.

But last week's demonstrations have had little impact on tourist arrivals. Visitors who arrive at the country's only airport situated on another small island near Male, are whisked by boat or seaplanes to their destinations far away from the capital.

"Tourism has been unaffected by the incidents in Male," noted Gehan Perera, a spokesman for Sri Lanka's Aitken Spence group, which has a couple of top-class resorts in the Maldives.

"However if the situation escalates and if there is an international dimension, then there would be some problems," Perera told IPS.

Niranjan Deva Addithya, member of the European Parliament, urged tourists not to visit the Maldives saying that by doing so they would be supporting a "tyrannical regime".

"The 77,400 British, 106,451 Italian and 77,642 German tourists, who visited the Maldives in the past year alone, paying an average of $200 a night in plush hotels, are supporting a tyrannical regime while 329,000 people are scrounging out an existence on less than one dollar a day," the Sri Lankan-born MP who lives in Britain was quoted as saying.

(Inter Press Service)


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Feizal Samath is a correspondent for IPS.

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